Sarita Sarvate

India Currents Commentary Award


In Defense of Universal Human Rights

BY SARITA SARVATE

Some recent news items have made me wonder if we as a society are suffering from a kind of cultural schizophrenia. In one news story the decision to drop charges against an Iraqi immigrant accused of marrying a 12-year-old girl was defended as being culturally sensitive by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. Another more horrifying story was about a group of doctors in Seattle who are considering a modified form of female circumcision to accommodate the cultural traditions of their immigrant clients.

To me such stories are very troubling. They smack not of cultural sensitivity but of cultural discrimination. After all, some of us Third World immigrants came to America to enjoy the freedom and equality that the enlightened West offered us, not to be pigeonholed as Asian women whose culture allows them to be mistreated. We would like to feel secure in the knowledge that the laws of our adopted land will protect us in case of maltreatment at the hands of anyone, even our own families.

Are we not taking political correctness a little too far in these cases? Where would our cultural sensitivity lead us next? Should we allow the taking of dowry from a bride’s family because it is a common practice in India? Should we order a woman’s head to be shaved as punishment for adultery as they do in Bangladesh? Such customs may not blatantly violate any laws, yet, in a civilized society, should such acts be tolerated? And is it not ironic that in every case, it is a woman who is being mistreated, not a man?

In the news items above, the female point of view was never presented. Instead, in each case, a male from the community was used as a “cultural spokesperson” to justify the practice on the basis of tradition. The father of an Ethiopian girl wanted to be rid of the nuisance of his daughter’s sexuality by having parts of her clitoris removed. An Iraqi man not only defended the minor’s marriage on the basis of cultural tradition but accused the establishment of using stricter standards of law enforcement for immigrant communities relative to the mainstream.

Contrary to these allegations, immigrant women often do not receive equal protection under the law. In the South Asian immigrant community many women are getting the short shrift at the hands of judges and social workers who are bending over backwards to accommodate the “cultural sensitivities” of their immigrant husbands. A preponderance of evidence across ethnic groups also suggests that the establishment does not adequately protect women against abusive males.

And the stories disturb me for another reason. We immigrants must ask ourselves which of our cultural traditions we want to preserve after coming to the West. It is one thing to want to eat our childhood foods or to long for the music of yesteryear, but it is another thing to want to subjugate a wife or beat a child because that is what we grew up with.

Many immigrants say, “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the hot running water, the refrigerators, and the cars.” My response to them is, “Perhaps you shouldn’t be.” We immigrants would be remiss if, while enjoying the great fruits of Western civilization, we refused to abide by its basic social tenets developed after years of social and political struggle.

Intolerance towards abusive cultural practices is often justified on the grounds that in their absence a woman would suffer further abuse in the country of her origin. In the case of circumcision, for example, doctors argued that if they did not perform such a procedure, the families would take their daughters back to their native lands to perform riskier, highly mutilating operations. But the argument that a girl would suffer worse abuse in her own country cannot be an excuse for subjecting her to lesser abuse here. Instead, we should try to prevent the abuse altogether. If a girl has mutilated genitals, perhaps her parents should be asked to explain when and how she acquired this condition.

We should educate immigrant communities in the enlightened ways of treating a woman rather than coddling them and accommodating their oppressive traditions into our mainstream. We must have confidence in our own values as a society to believe that our notions of human rights apply universally, to men and women regardless of race or ethnicity.

India Currents February 1997

Commentary Writing Award